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Mental Health

Happiness and sisu: how to find contentment, according to the happiest country in the world

Searching for the secret to happiness? It’s time to make like the people of Finland and embrace the concept of ‘sisu’.

The 2021 World Happiness Report has been published, and the results are surprising, to say the least.

Because, despite the tumultuous events of the past 12 months, researchers have found that self-reported life satisfaction across 95 countries has, on average, remained steady.

“Surprisingly there was not, on average, a decline in wellbeing when measured by people’s own evaluation of their lives,” Professor John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, one of the editors of the happiness report, said in a press release.

“One possible explanation is that people see Covid-19 as a common, outside threat affecting everybody and that this has generated a greater sense of solidarity and fellow-feeling.”

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Speaking to the Washington Post, Helliwell continues: “One of the quotes we use is ‘You aren’t traveling the world, but you’re more likely to have met your neighbours this year.’ ”

The professor goes on to say that “stressors such as those we’ve experienced this year can encourage people to craft a different, big-picture concept of happiness.”

And this, he says, has improved our sense of resilience.

The happiest country in the world

For the fourth year in a row, Finland – famous for having the world’s best education system, the cleanest air, and Moomins – has been crowned as the world’s happiest country. But why? 

Aerial view to Kaisaniemi district and downtown Helsinki by sunset in summer - stock photo
Finland has once again been named the world’s happiest country.

Well, according to the World Happiness Report, Finnish contentment largely stems from good working conditions, an admirable government, clean air, and high levels of mutual trust, which have helped to protect lives and livelihoods during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to our Nordic pals themselves, however, the source of their happiness can be found in their daily habits. Indeed, according to Visit Finland’s official six-step programme, one needs to do the following “to be happy like a Finn”…

  1. Sweat in a sauna
  2. Walk in the forest and spend time in nature
  3. Go wild swimming
  4. Try foraging (berry-picking, in particular, is recommended)
  5. Make the most of the sunshine
  6. Find the space to breathe

As per Heikki Väänänen’s comments for City AM, all of the above is key to a happier and healthier life. The concept of “sisu”, though, is just as integral to understanding the source of Finland’s contentment – if not more so.

The Finnish concept of ‘sisu’

“You can’t translate sisu into a single English word,” says Väänänen. “It’s a combination of determination, perseverance, grit, and stoicism… [and it is from this that] we build our own sense of worth.”

Scenic View Of River Amidst Trees Against Sky During Sunset
Sisu is “a combination of determination, perseverance, grit, and stoicism.”

Väänänen continues: “Whereas many cultures glorify telling others about your achievements, and subsequently receiving gratification, in Finland we discourage such behaviour. It wouldn’t be very sisu.

“Instead, you form a personal bond with a task. When you succeed, value comes from within and the feeling of overcoming a challenge.

“This personal pride provides a more sustainable and deeper happiness than what you can get from external validation.”

How to be more ‘sisu’

“Learn to develop your own sense of self-worth so that you don’t depend on others to feel good about yourself,” advises psychologist and therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, when asked how we can wean ourselves off our need for external praise.

“Reflect on your belief systems about praise. Where and how you developed them, how it was managed in your family as a child, and the hidden messages you received. It might be helpful to do this with a friend or a therapist. Reflect on times where you didn’t manage your parents’ expectations – what was their reaction? How did you feel about it? And what did you do to protect yourself from these feelings?” 

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Dr Ben-Ari continues: “There are hidden messages that you learned in these events. Use them to start to question your belief systems, your learned values about it and work on replacing them with more of a growth and resilience mindset. Your beliefs are the root for your inner voice.

“For example, you could go from: ‘My boss doesn’t like my work. They didn’t appreciate it and I think they are not happy – I must be bad at my job’ to ‘I did my best and I think it is good. If my boss needs me to do it differently, they will tell me and I can grow from that feedback. I am able to adjust and learn and this is my strength.’

“If you did something that feels great, acknowledge it within. Tell yourself that YOU feel proud in yourself. Give yourself the feedback you always wanted to get from others. Be the source for it to yourself.” 

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